How HR Can Be Proactive About Mental Health During COVID-19

Article main image
Apr 13, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

In the blink of an eye, the world has changed. No matter the industry, people are being asked to adapt to isolation and remote work, all while handling the fear of infection, the uncertainty in the economy, and a constant stream of unsettling news. The Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index just reported that the number of Americans self-quarantining and working remotely has almost quadrupled in the last week.

The index also shows that Americans are reporting worsening mental health (35% worse vs. 22% last week) and emotional well-being (43% worse vs. 29%). It’s no surprise then that, as reported in MIT Technology Review, mental health providers are seeing up to 25% increases in counseling requests.

We’ve all probably felt at least some level of stress in the last few weeks. Just taking a walk on eerily empty streets, going grocery shopping, or facing yet another day of staying inside is enough to leave us feeling anxious, frustrated, exhausted, and any other number of emotions — sometimes all at the same time.

The CDC points out that while fear, anxiety, and stress due to the coronavirus outbreak can be overwhelming for both adults and children, some groups may find the crisis more stressful than others. These groups include older individuals, people with chronic diseases who are at higher risk for COVID-19, children and teens, healthcare providers and first responders, and people who have pre-existing mental health conditions, including problems with substance use.

Many in the government and public health space are responding. Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced over 6,000 mental health professionals have volunteered for the state’s new network of free mental health services. The National Health Commission of China has already deployed crisis interventions for COVID-19 patients, healthcare workers, and the general public through support hotlines and outreach teams.

But there’s another key group that should be taking swift action: employers.

Our study from the end of 2019 shows that 1 in 5 members of employer health plans has at least one diagnosed mental health condition. This is based on data from over 2,500 organizations in the Springbuk Health Intelligence Platform.

The financial impact of mental health — on both the business and its people — is shocking: The average monthly cost of medical and prescription claims for each member with a mental health condition is 203% higher than costs for members without a mental health condition. At a company of 40,000 employees, this could result in claims costs of over $148 million per year. And when these mental health conditions are coupled with other physical chronic illnesses, the costs rise even higher.

This pandemic will cause not only increased stress, anxiety, and fear — but increased financial burdens on organizations and people who are already feeling the impact of an economic downturn, decreased revenue, and layoffs. It’s a perfect storm of external and internal factors that will continue to make work and life even more challenging, even after the threat of infection dies down.

So, what should HR and people leaders do to prepare?

  1. Start with empathy. Now, more than ever, people should know their employers see them as more than just a number. One of the best things HR and people leaders can do is ensure every policy, change, and communication is full of compassion, sensitivity, flexibility, and support.
  2. Evaluate your mental health services. Do you offer access to an EAP or online counseling? Now is the perfect time to get one up and running. Especially in areas with lockdown or social distancing policies in place, these digital tools can give employees and their families a place to process stress and learn helpful coping skills.
  3. Finally, take a look at your data. Can you work with your health plan or benefits consultant to see what segments of your workforce, departments, or locations might be of particularly high risk? With a more accurate picture of factors like age, respiratory illnesses, job function, pre-existing mental health conditions, or opioid addictions, you can create more targeted interventions and reach out to employee groups that may need it most.

There has never been a more important time for HR, benefits, and people leaders. While government and public health officials move to drive awareness and build solutions for mental health, HR already has the tools, knowledge, and influence to make a direct impact on the well-being of their employees and employees’ families. By making mental health a priority, leaders have the opportunity to strengthen their people and their organizations, not just for this health crisis, but for the long term.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.